I was inspired to write this by Bodysnatcher’s post - Blunder’s of the Inexperienced. This should make you feel better Bodysnatcher.
Yesterday evening I decided to packraft the Eagle River Loop Rd. to Glenn Highway Bridge section of Eagle river with my girlfriend (Alissa). I don’t have much whitewater experience, but I had run that section in my packraft with friends three times this year. This was Alissa’s second time in a river in a packraft, and the first time in her brand new packraft. The first time she was in a packraft at all was last fall on the upper Kenai. We decided to practice wet-exits and throwing rescue bags on Campbell lake before we left. Neither of us have ever taken a whitewater rescue class though. I’m glad we at least practiced what we thought we knew though…that was close to the last intelligent move we made that day.
I wasn’t worried about Alissa handling the class 2 rapids up to Campground Rapids, and it turns out she did great. We spent a lot of time practicing eddying out and surfing waves and sticking our boats into holes as we progressed down the river. She was confident and really enjoying herself, and looking good while doing it. When we got close to Campground Rapids, we pulled out for a deliberation. We had already looked at Campground Rapids when we dropped the car off for the takeout. I had pointed out the obstacles: the stair, the rocks, and the big log jam/sweeper in the middle. I also told her about the best (in retrospect"best" being a descriptor that changes with conditons) and most common way to run the rapid - far river right, with an out to the far left if you didn’t think you had the time to clear the sweeper. It didn’t look much different than I had seen it before. However, by the time we pulled out to deliberate whether to run it, I knew the river was higher. Many of the rocks in the class 2 section that were previously exposed, were now underwater. I had told her as much. But then Alissa happily said she wanted to go for it…and I foolishly agreed, thinking that Campground hadn’t looked any bigger from above. I told her to give me about 100 feet and follow me.
It WAS bigger, (close to a foot higher on the gauge from a week ago as it turns out) and it took me over my comfort zone real quick. The waves were significantly larger, and there was a whole new wave/hole in the middle of the run. I got over to river right a little slower than previous times, but got on the line between the last rock and the right bank and looked back for Alissa. What I saw shot a huge slug of dread and adrenaline through me - she was too far on river left, and trying valiantly to get right, but I knew she was going to nail the sweeper. I started paddling harder, this time to get down and out of my packraft as quickly as possible and try to pull her out of the sweeper if she got caught. She almost missed the sweeper and made the line, but not quite.
The river flipped her almost immediately and she was pushed under on the upstream beam of her raft and immediately ripped her spraydeck off just like we had practiced in calm, currentless Campbell lake. I saw her boat get pulled around the edge of the sweeper and down the step. Then I saw her appear only to disappear a second or two later as she fell down the last and biggest step. My blood pooled in my veins until she broke the surface again a couple of second later. She had a calm expression on her face as she floated on her back, feet downstream. Maybe it was at that moment, maybe I had already done it, but regardless, I made the perhaps foolish decision to leave my raft and paddle on the shore in order to have a stable base to throw the rope to her. My aim was true, but my fingers were buttered and I dropped the end of the rope after I threw, prompting me to dive in after it. I grabbed my end right before she grabbed her end, but now we were BOTH swimming and connected by a rope. Fortunately I got back to shore in a few seconds (after banging my knee). I half pulled her in, but she had mostly swam in by herself at that moment. I asked if she was ok and she replied with an affirmative. My eye was only half on her at this point as I was suddenly taken with sight of her packraft passing us floating downriver and paralleling the opposite bank.
Thus began the second part of our epic saga of the night - calling Fort Rich and having an EXTREMELY supportive and friendly soldiery attempt to save our raft. This is ESPECIALLY true of civilian Fort Rich Game Warden Noah Meisenheimer - all praises to his name, there is no God but Supportive and Selfless Local Knowledge and Noah is His Prophet - who immediately agreed to help us look for the raft in a few likely places he knew of. This was around midnight. Luckily our raft was FOUND by Noah (minus Aquabound Splat paddle) in the first of those places we searched. Getting to it involved Noah volunteering to stay WAY past his shift’s end, four-bying down ATV trails in his pickup while we hung on in the bed, following his GPS on foot through the woods for an hour roundtrip hike to boat, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, and me crawling out onto a shaky log jam while being eaten by said mosquitoes to retrieve the boat. We got home around 3 in the morning.
Lessons learned: MANY, some of which I have implied above and more of which I am sure I have not yet been made aware.
Depths of Imbecility Probed by myself: fathomless.